Freeloaders from around the world are this week nursing hangovers and mourning the curtailing of one of the wine world's most extraordinary institutions: the St Vincent Tournante, in Burgundy.

Last Saturday and Sunday in excess of 100,000 revellers descended on the villages of Montagny and Buxy in southern Burgundy and polished off some 30,000 bottles of free wine. Free drink for all comers has been an annual institution since 1938, when the first festival was held in Chambolle-Musigny.

Every year since (apart from during the war), a different Burgundy village has hosted the event, under the auspices of the order of the Chevaliers du Tastevin.

But the good times are coming to an end. Next year the Chevaliers will honour their patron saint in a much smaller celebration, held in the confines of their Burgundy headquarters, Château du Clos de Vougeot.

Not everyone regrets the end of the days of unlimited free drink. Olivier Leflaive, the Puligny-Montrachet négociant, has helped organise two of the festivals, held annually on the last weekend in January.

‘The first time 10,000 people came, and it was mainly a vignerons celebration. Then in 1991 there was a huge crowd. The second time there was a fight and it was difficult for the police to get through such large numbers of people,’ Leflaive said.

But in general the event is trouble free. Last weekend Montagny and Buxy, in the Côte Chalonnaise, were adorned with hundreds of thousands of paper flowers, which the villagers spent four years making, and thousands of Christmas trees, donated as remainder stock by stores throughout France.

The wines were special cuvées of (white) Montagny from four years, 1997 – 1999, made by the Buxy co-op from grapes donated by local growers.

The event is largely self-financed by the sale of souvenir glasses. The chief threat to its survival is the cost of the police and emergency services, which this year cost local villages around £50,000 (US$70,540).

Written by Patrick Matthews29 January 2002